The men drove Rachell to a desolate lot by a sugar factory, beat her and yelled, “If you were more of a man this wouldn’t be happening to you!”
Rachell lay in the dirt, bleeding and weak. Her abductors let her escape on her promise never to return. So she fled Honduras and began the long journey to the United States that eventually led her to a sponsor’s home in the Twin Cities’ northwest suburbs to wait for her asylum case to be heard.
Amid a record number of Central American asylum-seekers seeking refuge from gang violence, Rachell’s case features a rarer claim of persecution: She was targeted by the gang MS-13 because she is a transgender woman. Central America, like much of the world, can be a dangerous place for the LGBT community, and Rachell and human rights activists say they face threats from gangs there who want to use them for drug-running and prostitution.
Some immigration advocates see hope for transgender defendants, noting they have strong cases even in a climate where asylum is rarely granted.
“These are not people who are leaving their country because they’re just trying to have a better life — they’re leaving their country because they’re going to get murdered and raped if they stay,” said Allegra Love, attorney and executive director of the nonprofit Santa Fe Dreamers Project. “These are winning cases and these are women who absolutely fall squarely into the group that our refugee [laws] intend to protect.”
The Trump administration has been cracking down on migrants arriving from Central America, arguing that people fleeing widespread conditions of violence and poverty do not meet the specific standards of persecution that must be proven to receive asylum. Trump officials say that Central Americans are exploiting the system to find jobs — often being released with court dates far into the future — but do not meet the definition of refugees.
“I understand [President Donald Trump] because he’s trying to protect his country,” Rachell, 24, said of the president’s discouragement of new arrivals at the Mexican border. “But … I wish he could see the things that we’re suffering in our countries and that we don’t have laws to protect us.”
Ira Mehlman said it’s hard to comment on individual cases, but asylum and refugee laws say that someone must demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution, not just that they live in a dangerous country.
“We need to be distinguishing between people who are being singled out versus people who just live in a generally dysfunctional society,” said Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington, D.C.,-based organization that advocates for restricting immigration.
He added that the U.S. must put pressure on the governments of these countries to ensure that people are not being singled out for persecution.
Getting a sponsor
The Santa Fe Dreamers Project helped connect Rachell with a sponsoring family in Minnesota as part of a strategy of getting transgender women released from detention and relocated in areas that are transgender-friendly and where immigration judges have higher approval rates of asylum claims.
In the immigration court in Bloomington, two of the three judges each approved roughly 26% and 30% of asylum cases in recent years, according to Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a Syracuse University-based organization that tracks federal data.
Rachell recounted her story to the Star Tribune on the condition that she be referred to only by her first name, out of safety concerns for her and her family back in Central America. The Star Tribune also reviewed some of her immigration documents, including a transcript of a March interview with U.S. immigration authorities to establish that she had “credible fear” of returning to Honduras.
Rachell said she grew up in a poor family in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, where her hard-drinking father beat her with electrical cords, used homophobic slurs when he saw her playing with dolls and said he wanted to make her a man. The family kicked her out of the house when she was 12. Rachell said she ate in churches and begged for money in the streets.
By the time she was 18, she found a job at a factory making shirts alongside many other gay and transgender workers. She said members of the MS-13 gang would approach her on her way home, teenagers packing 9-millimeter handguns and AK-47s, taunting her to work for them.
Rachell told immigration authorities that the gang would kill her if she did not join. Eventually, they came to her family’s home and shot two of her brothers, texting Rachell pictures of their bodies dead on the ground. She kept the photos, which she showed to the Star Tribune.
Then, she said, police — guided by a gang member on a mobile phone — kidnapped her. They beat her and took a photo of her appearing to be dead, presumably for evidence, and left her there. Rachell recounted walking several kilometers in the dark, her body aching, pushing through the November chill to find help. A sister sent her money to go to the United States, where she stayed at several detention centers.
She learned from an immigration official about Cibola County Correctional Center in New Mexico, which has space designated for transgender women, arranged to be transferred there and stayed for two months.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement told the New York Times it was holding 72 migrants who identify as transgender as of last June 30.
Love, of the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, said that without the pod for transgender inmates at Cibola, “women would be forced to choose between being very, very vulnerable to sexual assault and sexual violence in an all-male population, [but] when they say ‘I can’t be in an all-male population’ they’re often put into solitary confinement.”
At home in Minnesota
Jamie Nabozny had been looking into how to sponsor asylum-seekers when he learned that transgender women faced a particular need. With help from the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, he began talking to Rachell by phone while she was in Cibola.
She came to live with his family in April, taking up residence in Nabozny’s seven-bedroom house that he shares with his partner, mother, stepfather and four children ages 10 to 15. They’ve had to communicate using Google Translate on their phones. Piece by piece, he has come to understand her struggles for acceptance back home.
“I went through some pretty horrific things at the hands of people who were homophobic and didn’t like me because I was gay,” said Nabozny, who came out in the 1980s. “But I always went home to a family who loved and supported me, and if I didn’t have that I can’t imagine I would have survived.”
Rachell, for her part, was surprised that the government here had allowed a gay couple to adopt children; she began to imagine what it would be like to have a family of her own one day. She feels accepted in the United States — here they no longer stare at her and don’t seem to discriminate.
Rachell acknowledged that winning asylum would be difficult, but “if they send me back, at least I can feel at one point in my life I was able to live the life I want.”